I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
There are many things each of knows for certain to be true; then we discover we’ve been swallowing a myth all along. Falsehoods get passed along by word of mouth or even in published media that should know better. Of course, the world of Internet chatter now amplifies untruths massively and makes it almost impossible to get the correct story out. Here is a valiant, yet probably futile, attempt to set the record straight of a few myths that carry the currency of accuracy.
1. George Washington’s Wooden Teeth
Well into the 20th century, American children were taught that George Washington had false teeth made of wood.
The first President of the United States did have a lot of dental issues and, when he was sworn into office in 1789, he only had one natural tooth left. He had many sets of dentures; one was mostly made out of walrus ivory, but some of the lower teeth were human, pulled from cadavers. He did not have any false teeth made out of wood.
The National Library for the Study of George Washington has not been unable to track down the source of the myth. However, it suggests one explanation “is that the ivory employed in the dentures fabricated for Washington by dentist John Greenwood became stained over time, giving them a grained, wooden appearance that misled later observers.”
Also, contrary to popular belief, Washington did not wear a wig, although he did powder his own hair.
Sorry to break another myth, but the boy Washington did not fess up to cutting down his father’s cherry tree. An early spin doctor called Mason Locke Weems invented the dialogue “I cannot tell a lie … I did cut it with my hatchet” in a “biography.”
2. High Swedish Suicide Rates
Sweden is one of the best countries in the world in which to live, so why do so many of them take their own lives? It turns out they don’t. On a global scale, Sweden ranks 51st in suicide rates among 183 nations, well behind Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States, according to figures compiled by the World Health Organization.
So, why is the high suicide rate story so widely believed? It’s probably because of Republican U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As he approached the end of his presidency, he was keen to boost the electoral chances of his vice president, Richard Nixon. The Republicans tried to shape the 1960 presidential election as a battle between freedom and the policies of John F. Kennedy, which they branded state socialism.
Eisenhower tried to discredit Kennedy's progressive platform by trash-talking Sweden and its democratic socialism. Speaking to Republicans in Chicago in July 1960 he said the Scandinavian country “has a tremendous record for socialistic operation … and the record shows that their rate of suicide has gone up almost unbelievably and I think they were almost the lowest nation in the world for that. Now, they have more than twice our rate. Drunkenness has gone up. Lack of ambition is discernible on all sides.”
It was hogwash—all of it—based on a completely inaccurate magazine article the president had read. Two years later, he apologized for his “error.” But the damage was done, and it’s still received wisdom in many quarters that Swedes top themselves at an alarming rate.
3. Victorian Piano Legs
Victorians are known for their prudery, which is strange because the monarch for which the period is named had a lusty appetite for sex.
Anyway, it’s frequently passed around that Victorians covered the legs of pianos because the sight of the unclad limb was likely to throw men into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy. It’s a myth that stems from an incident of *ahem* leg-pulling.
Captain Frederick Marryat was a British naval hero who embarked on a tour of America. He chronicled his travels in a book in 1839 entitled A Diary in America. The volume was satirical in which the writer described visiting a New York state boarding school for girls where he saw “a square piano-forte with four limbs” (Marryat’s italics). He added that the lady who ran the establishment had “dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them.”
Marryat concluded that the purpose of covering the legs of the piano was “To preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies …” The notion that this was the case might have been planted in Marryat’s mind by the U.S. President’s son, John van Buren. It seems that van Buren spun the story to see if Marryat was gullible enough to fall for it.
Not only did the author swallow the prank but so did the British newspapers that gleefully poked fun at the prudish nature of Americans.
4. The 10 Percent Brain
It seems likely we have to thank the American psychologist and author William James for the myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. In his 1907 book The Energies of Men, he wrote that “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
James didn’t quantify which portion of the brain lay fallow, but journalist Lowell Thomas took a stab at it. In writing the preface to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, Thomas pulled the 10 percent number out of who knows where?
We are also led to believe the 10 percent brain function story carried the stamp of approval from Albert Einstein. Not true. There’s no record of Einstein ever saying or writing such a thing.
Certainly, we all know people who appear to only use a small portion of their brain. Some, sadly, might be using all their brain but only coming up with 10 percent of normal functionality. No need to name names, but we all know who he is.
Barry Gordon is a neurologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. He says “It turns out … that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time.”
However, the myth sustains countless hucksters who pedal brain-boosting snake oil.
- Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. The first appearance of homo sapiens was 300,000 years ago. Despite these indisputable scientific facts, between 24 percent and 41 percent of Americans, depending on whose poll you read, believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.
- “Blind as a bat” is a commonly heard idiom. Yet, of the 1,200 species of bat in the world, only one is actually blind. According to Rob Mies, executive director of the Michigan-based Organization for Bat Conservation, larger bats “can see three times better than humans.”
- There is no evidence, none, that the movement and position of celestial objects affect a person’s personality or the outcome of their lives. However, so-called quality newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times, Le Figaro, and The Daily Telegraph carry daily horoscopes that are regularly believed by about 30 percent of the population. Such a statement will likely trigger responses that the writer is full of hooey.
- “51 Favorite Facts You’ve Always Believed That Are Actually False.” David McCandless, Reader’s Digest, undated.
- “Wooden Teeth Myth.” William M. Etter, Ph.D., The National Library for the Study of George Washington, undated.
- “When a US President Speaks About Sweden, the Fallout Can Last a Long Time.” Paul Rapacioli, The Local, January 12, 2018.
- “A Diary in America.” Frederick Marryat, Carey & Hart, 1839.
- “Do People Only Use 10 Percent of Their Brains?” Robynne Boyd, Scientific American, February 7, 2008
- “6 Bat Myths Busted: Are They Really Blind?” Liz Langley, National Geographic, November 1, 2014.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on March 06, 2019:
I can see where some people may have thought some of Washington's teeth were made out of wood because of an accumulation of stain markings, interesting insight. I remember the circus would take rams or goats and infuse the stems of their two horns together so the animal would grow a single horn like a unicorn. The same process also has been applied by cross-breeding two different types of flowers or plants together.
Liz Westwood from UK on March 05, 2019:
You give some interesting historical background to these sayings. I was certainly taken in by the bat mistake for many years.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 04, 2019:
Hey, Rupert, thanks for sharing. That is human nature very gullible to swallow anything like a greedy goat. The sense of discerning is hardly applied. Like as we usually said take it with a pinch of salt. In Greek times, they said the earth is flat because a man of authority or the Pope said it is taken for grant. The same still applies today. Have a nice day, and thank you again.
Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on March 04, 2019:
This is super interesting to me! Even though, I hadn't heard any of these stories before!